“My office door is almost always open”

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When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out the passengers disappeared within a few days, resulting in cancellations, lay-offs and redundancies.
“I have done my best to respond to the staff’s worries and grief,” says Gretel Aronsson, staff purser on Silja Symphony and this year’s SAN prize-winner.

When Gretel Aronsson went home on leave on 7 March this year, everything was as usual. There were almost 2,000 passengers on board, a large number of performing artists and a full crew. After ten days she was back on board, where everything was completely different.

“It was a very remarkable situation,” she says. “All the cruise passengers were gone. Most of the crew, who live in Finland, had gone home the day before and the rest left on 19 March. Walking around on a ship that can take over 2,800 passengers was like being on a ghost ship.”

Silja Line’s other Swedish-flagged passenger ship, the Galaxy, changed over to goods-only transport, with some lorry drivers and working commuters. The Symphony moored at the quay in Vartahamnen, Stockholm, with around 20 crewmembers on board. The temporary workers, who made up a large part of the crew, were made redundant while the permanent staff were put on short-term furlough.

“Many of our temporary workers have been with us for years and it was so sad when they left us – we couldn’t even give them a hug. But we kept our hopes up and thought that the situation wouldn’t last for very long. At first we thought that the ships would start up again at Easter, but that didn’t happen. Then we hoped that the Valborg holiday would bring more passengers, but that didn’t happen either,” says Gretel Aronsson.

She describes the atmosphere among crewmembers as lurching between hope and despair. Even though the Silja Symphony has made some cruises to Visby and Härnösand since last summer and the Galaxy has a number of special cruises booked, the sense of uncertainty is always present. Nobody knows how things will work out, either with operations or with their jobs.

“As staff purser, I try to respond to the staff’s worries and answer their questions. They often come up with questions after they have been at home for a couple of days – they wonder if they can come back to work and how things will work out with their salary and leave and so on. If I can’t give them an answer straight away, I try to find out and get back to them. I know how important it is to be listened to when you are in a crisis and the door to my office is almost always open,” says Gretel Aronsson.

Wanted to see the world
Even though the cruise industry is in a deep crisis at the moment, Gretel Aronsson says she loves her job. She likes to work at sea and she wants to be available for the staff, in good times and bad. However, it was not very usual for a young woman from Älmhult to work at sea in the late 1970s.

“Most people in Älmhult worked at IKEA, but I wasn’t interested in that. I was far too curious and wanted to get out and see the world. One day I saw an article in the local newspaper, Smålandsposten, about a girl who worked on a ship in the Mediterranean and it was then I thought I would like to do that too. My parents supported the idea of working at sea, so I signed up at the job centre for seafarers and got a job straight away on M/S Saga, owned by Svenska Lloyd.”

After that she changed to Johnson Line and their ocean-going ships before she started at Silja Line. Gretel Aronsson has worked at sea for almost forty years now.

“I have dedicated my life to shipping,” she says. “I did work at the marine job centre AF Sjöfart in Stockholm for a few years, but even though it was a nice workplace and I had wonderful colleagues, I always longed to go back to sea”.

Text and photo Linda Sundgren

Motivation for the SAN prize:
The winner of the SAN Prize 2020 is a person who has shown great professionalism and a wide range of skills during her long career at sea, as well as extraordinary empathy and concern for her colleagues. During the pandemic, her ability to empathize with others has really shone through and there are many employees on board who have found support and sympathy from our prize-winner. She has taken great personal responsibility for those affected through listening, talking and supporting them. Her commitment has gone far beyond that required by her professional role and duties and she has spent many hours of her free time helping and supporting her fellow seafarers.


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